Kimberly McGlonn is a down-to-earth entrepreneur with a lofty mission. She wants to help other women save the world and look fabulous while doing so by wearing her one-of-a-kind, up-cycled, sustainably made garments.
McGlonn and her imaginative all-female team of designers utilize vintage or used clothing, as well as virgin fabric, to create stylish tops, bottoms, dresses, skirts, outerwear, and accessories at her retail business, Grant Blvd. The company, studio, and store in the 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia are named for the Milwaukee street where the owner grew up in the ‘90s.
Grant Blvd is not her only calling. For 18 years, she has been an English teacher at Lower Moreland High School — a vocation that informs her design sensibility.
“I love storytelling,” McGlonn said last month on a snow-flurried afternoon at Grant Blvd. “I love texture and I love color as ways of telling stories. I love movement [of fabric] as a way of telling stories.”
During a lively, two-hour conversation, McGlonn covered topics such as global exploitation of garment workers, environmental justice, and “teaching through fashion.” McGlonn paused every so often to wave to neighbors and others passing by, or gazing into the shop, from the chilly avenue.
Last week, she learned that she had been awarded a BeyGood grant. That’s Bey as in Beyonce, whose BeyGood philanthropic organization teamed up last year with the NAACP to make grants of up to $10,000 to Black-owned small-business owners to help deal with the economic impact of the pandemic.
“In a time that is so challenging, the affirmation of such an influential person and her team keeps us committed to the work ahead,” said McGlonn, who declined to say how much her grant was for.
At Grant Blvd’s airy workspace, a black-and-white photo she took of her family homestead commands a place of honor. It was on Grant Boulevard, on Milwaukee’s North Side, that McGlonn learned about the challenges facing Black people, other people of color, and people marginalized by poverty. It’s also where she learned the importance of working for justice.
And the West Philly business named for that house is where, masked and at a social distance, McGlonn and members of her team brainstorm about what best to make of their ever-changing stocks of materials. Later, they individually reboot and remix their concepts into unique clothing items women can wear to make a statement as well as a difference.
Graphic T-shirts and other items screen-printed with pithy slogans such as “mad sustainable” and “end cash bail” reflect two of the many causes championed by Grant Blvd, which also supports progressive organizations such as Project HOME.
McGlonn’s inspirations, sense of purpose, and what appears to be unstoppable energy have many sources, including her mother’s volunteer work with incarcerated individuals, the Ph.D. in curriculum development McGlonn earned at Louisiana State University, and even the experience she had at a silent yoga retreat in the Berkshires.
“The film changed my altitude [for] looking at the landscape. It elevated my understanding,” she said. “The film made me think about what the real core issues are and how to ask questions like, how do we create and build new solutions that are tied to the future and the fate of the planet?
“Hence this effort,” she said, gesturing at the deftly arranged displays of clothing at Grant Blvd.
McGlonn, who is also a member of the Jenkintown Borough Council and mother of a 12-year-old daughter named Hana, founded Grant Blvd online in 2018. She opened the bricks-and-mortar Lancaster Avenue location — in what had been a former garage — shortly before the pandemic erupted. But she and her team have barely dropped a stitch.
“Vada said, ‘We’re going to make this happen,’” McGlonn said, crediting Grant Blvd’s director of design and production, Nevada “Vada” Gray.
“We have sewing machines at home and at the studio, so we can work from home,” said Gray, who has been designing and making formal and special occasion wear for 20 years. She credits the meeting of mind, spirit, and sensibility she and McGlonn share as a key element of their successful collaboration.
“Streetwear was new for me when I came on board, so I like to make the everyday have that little touch or element of fabulous,” Gray said. “It could be a cuff, or stitching, or an extra pocket.”
Drexel University student Emma Dietz, who is the design and production lead assistant at Grant Blvd, said: “The work culture is just amazing. We all know each other really well and are excited about exchanging ideas.”
Dietz also noted that Grant Blvd is poised to capture a growing market in goods produced by the “maker and up-cycler culture” that has taken root among small businesses in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
Loyal customers such as Lauren Walker, of Wynnefield, and Shay Strawser, of North Philadelphia, said being in the store provides a sense of community for women committed to fashion, as well as to sustainability, equity, and other causes.
“If I’m there as a customer or there hanging out and other customers come in, Kimberly makes everyone feel like they’re at home,” said Strawser, a Temple University student. “She provides such a warm environment and fine music and really dope pieces” of creative clothing. Her favorite: a remixed men’s plaid shirt wearable as a dress, which drew many compliments during her recent visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“Kim is a Black woman who is strong in her identity, super-educated, and amazing,” said Walker, who lives in Wynnefield and supports recycling and sustainability efforts. One of her favorite Grant Blvd pieces is “a little pin stripe crop top” repurposed from a men’s shirt.
“For something like a homegrown, Philly-based business owned by a woman of color,” added Walker, “the time is now.”
McGlonn certainly believes so: She’s seeking angel investors to help grow Grant Blvd. And while the pandemic has disrupted everything, so did the Great Depression — a time, she noted, when some businesses not only survived, but thrived.
“That’s what I’m betting on,” she said.
“I’m betting on us. On all of us.”